MRU marketing students pitch innovative solutions to Calgary Folk Music Festival

Outside perspective hits the right notes with organizers
MRU students and David Finch.
Students with Dr. David Finch, PhD, collaborated this year with the Calgary Folk Music Festival.

While marketing students learn to pitch companies and measure key performance indicators in the classroom, less often are they provided the opportunity to work with successful local organizations in real time.

That’s just what Marketing-Driven Strategy, a course taught by Dr. David J. Finch, PhD, professor in marketing in Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business, aims to do. A senior-level Bachelor of Business Administration course, the class provides graduating students with the opportunity to discover real-world applications for the skills built throughout their degree program.

"We have no interest in graduating marketing students from MRU; we are graduating marketing professionals,” says Finch. “Being a professional isn't about telling the world what you can do but showing the world what you've done.”

While enrolled in the course, students form independent marketing agencies that compete with each other for client business. Over the past thirteen years, Mount Royal students have formed about 130 agencies and worked with 60 clients ranging from Lululemon to the Calgary Flames and the Inuit Art Foundation.

Their most recent collaboration? The Calgary Folk Music Festival, the local annual music and arts event with a 45-year history. Working closely with Calgary Folk Music Festival employees to collect data and establish current benchmarks, five student groups embarked on a semester-long project to market the festival, pitching their results and strategies to Calgary Folk Festival staff at Festival Hall on April 5.

In a more traditional business setting, marketers are tasked with driving dollars and cents. But at the Calgary Folk Festival, the product offered is the experience of attending a four-day summer event on Prince’s Island Park, complete with over 50,000 annual attendees, diverse musical lineups, children’s play areas and food trucks.

NexGen, a group of nine students, ​​presented their pitch to the jury of five judges composed of the organization’s board and staff. Their accompanying project, an impressive 51-page marketing plan and growth report, targeted individuals who are engaged in arts and culture in Calgary but haven’t purchased a ticket to live music in the past year.

‘A festival for everyONE’

Aliya Abdallah is a Bachelor of Business Administration student who graduates this spring. As Chief Strategy Officer for NexGen, she described how the group’s main strategy revolved around promoting “a festival for everyONE.”

“We conducted extensive research by interviewing various integrated professionals in the arts and culture scene in Calgary, as well as potential and former attendees of the festival to gain their perspectives,” says Abdallah. “We benchmarked over 50 music festivals outside of Canada to apply the insights from their successes to help build these recommendations.”

People gathered at the  Calgary Folk Music Festival.
Calgary Folk Music Festival attracts around 50,000 attendees each year to Prince’s Island Park.

Other student groups were prepared to bring their own ideas to the podium. ClearEdge, a competing group of seven students, focused on the festival’s audience segments and how the definition of ‘folk’ can be broad.

That sentiment echoes Artistic Director Kerry Clarke’s vision for the festival, which aims to mingle elements beyond musical genre under the wide umbrella of 'folk.'

“Folk does not just describe a musical genre, but encompasses many more elements,” she says. “It characterizes the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s atmosphere, shapes Calgary’s environment, and is built on the premise of inclusivity for all ages.”

Outside perspective on organization

While the evolution of folk has attracted new audiences and contributed to the growth of annual events, the Calgary Folk Music Festival is not immune to external threats that have impacted arts organizations globally. Student projects addressed the array of challenges posed to music festivals and live entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic, including significant slowdown in audience attendance rates and difficulty re-engaging once-loyal customers. They also thoroughly assessed Calgary Folk Music Festival attendees, proposing strategies to turn sampler audience segments into annual festival goers.

Jarrett Edmund is the Digital Content Manager at the Calgary Folk Music Festival and one of the judges who deliberated with colleagues on the pitched projects.

“This was a really exciting opportunity to work alongside MRU students and to gain some outside perspective on our organization,” says Edmund. “Their insights were invaluable as we continue to craft a dynamic marketing strategy for the next several years. Ahead of our forty-fifth-anniversary festival, we’re always looking for new and exciting ways to reach audiences in Calgary, across Alberta, and beyond.”

A Folk Festival pamphlet on a table.
The Folk Festival continues to develop a dynamic marketing strategy.

After deliberating on each proposal, Folk Festival staff crowned the winning project, and its runner-up, in a stiff competition. With a slim lead of 1.5 points, NexGen took home first place and ClearEdge was declared runner-up.

The process might seem high-stakes, but Finch’s goal is to expose graduating students to the situations they might experience upon entering the workforce; “this class isn't designed to simulate the real world; it is the real world,” he says.

That focus is clear to students enrolled in the class who are eager to draw on their experiences as they transition to marketing professionals.

“It was inspiring to collaborate with a local organization and contribute to their mission of promoting musical and cultural diversity, where I could see my tangible impact as a student,” says Abdallah. “Whether it's pitching ideas to clients or collaborating with colleagues, being able to convey complex ideas clearly is essential.”

As part of their prize, the winning group of students were invited to attend the 2024 Calgary Folk Music Festival with free tickets and a chance to see their strategies in action.

Read more about the Bissett School of Business at MRU.